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IOE Learning Technologies Unit


Learning Technology advice, research & consultancy


Review: Accommodating the Distance Learner in Fully Online Courses

By Tim Neumann, on 21 November 2018

Introductory slideThe first panel discussion in the Autumn term LTU seminar series Accommodating the Distance Learner took place on Friday 9th November.

Moderated by Tim Neumann, Head of IOE Learning Technologies Unit (LTU), and with support from Jo Stroud, UCL Distance Learning Facilitator, the discussion featured three experienced programme leaders, who each have been involved in distance education for at least 12 years:


Watch the recording below or on MediaCentral, or read the full transcript. The Text Chat Protocol is also available.

The discussion touched on a number of issues and revealed occasionally surprising insights that have an impact beyond distance education. Some of these themes are summarised below.

The ‘hidden’ Distance Learner

With options to study part time or flexibly at IOE, the boundaries between face-to-face students and remote students have become blurred. According to Richard Freeman, a Postgraduate Research Experience Survey showed that even before the launch of the Online MPhil/PhD, close to half of the respondents (41.5%) were self-identifying as distance learners, despite no distance programme being offered at the time in this area!

We see similar tendencies, albeit not on this scale, in postgraduate taught programmes, where students occasionally register for face-to-face attendance to secure access to sessions in person, while effectively being a distance learner after the start of the programme. Distance education appears to be more prevalent than registry data suggests. While this is a vote of confidence in the IOE’s student support systems and overall flexibility, this mismatch between registration data and reality poses a danger to informed decision-making when it comes to funding the teaching provision.

Equivalent, not Identical

Programme leaders were adamantly emphasising that distance learning programmes were the same in terms of status, value and academic rigour as face-to-face programmes, and not in any way second rate, or a ‘secondary choice’ option. This was an important point, as comparisons to face-to-face provision are still the norm.

In terms of student experience, Richard Freeman pointed out that distance learning is equivalent to face-to-face, but not identical. Direct in-person contact has characteristics that are impossible to capture at a distance, for example around the immediacy of conversations, or when hands-on work is required.

But Will Gibson found that educationally, face-to-face makes it more difficult to achieve what he wants to achieve, mainly because asynchronous online discussions stretch conversations over time, which forces students to think about things. The time to think was raised by the other programme leaders as a beneficial characteristic of distance education, which has no room in fast-paced face-to-face seminars and lectures and needs to be ‘outsourced’ to homework or independent work. While face-to-face classes could obviously also use online forums to stretch thinking time, we see that these tend to have much lower participation rates, whereas they are a highly-used core component in distance education.

All programme leaders agree that face-to-face and distance learning are different, but neither mode is necessarily better than the other. Both modes, while based on identical learning objectives, offer equivalent opportunities for engaging with content, concepts, staff and students.

The concept of equivalence occasionally raises some practical issues: Kim Insley reported an in-depth discussion during programme validation about the online equivalence of attendance, which IOE stipulates at ‘80% of all sessions’. Kim uses five Keep In Touch (KIT) activities per module as dedicated attendance monitoring points, which do not necessarily need to be completed at set dates. Other programme leaders follow a stricter timeline-dependent approach and use monitoring functions provided by the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

The Personal Touch

A common attitude of people unfamiliar with distance education is an inherent assumption of ‘social’ distance alongside geographical distance. All three programme leaders agreed that this could not be further from the truth: Kim Insley stated that she knows what’s going on inside the heads of her distance learners, because they are telling her, whereas face-to-face students do not necessarily do that.

Will Gibson felt he knew his distance learning students much better than face-to-face students, due to an ongoing conversation, as opposed to weekly or fortnightly meetings with not much contact in-between. These conversations include personal interests and issues, and tutors develop a sense of the students’ voice, which is important pedagogically.

Richard Freeman reported that distance learners often drop in to say hello while traveling through London.

The personal connection, including the sense of a student’s voice, ie getting to know their writing style, also addresses plagiarism; both Kim and Will agreed that knowing students makes plagiarism, usually accidental plagiarism, obvious, and it also supports decision-making when the plagiarism checker throws up issues.

Driving Support for All

To accommodate distance learners, the various supporting service departments of an organisation must play their role. Programme leaders praised a genuine interest, sometimes verging on excitement, from support departments in improving access to their services for distance learners. A key rationale was that better access for distance learners will automatically benefit face-to-face learners and the wider university community as a whole.

Specifically, the efforts and willingness from IOE Academic Writing Centre and Library Services were highlighted, but generally it was felt that other services, despite not always being perfect, were accessible to distance learners, or open to introduce more flexibility. UCL’s strong profile for open access, open education and open science was regarded as a key driver for a generally supportive organisational culture.

Overall, the biggest help for distance education students appears to be provided by administrators: Richard Freeman highlighted their unique role, as they are seen as more neutral as well as highly knowledgeable about the support options that are open to students, contributing significantly to the overall pastoral support.

Tips and Tricks

Programme leaders were each providing a parting recommendation on how to accommodate distance learners:

Will Gibson, having previously mentioned quick video summaries, highlighted weekly bulletins as a simple but effective means of guiding students through a course. Written in an informal tone, bulletins provide light orientation prompts to keep students focused and to enhance the social presence.

Richard Freeman mentioned the wide success of the flipped classroom approach, which means offloading content acquisition/lecture aspects to videos and using session time for working on clarification of concepts and understanding. But he also warned that distance education is not for everyone, not for every topic, and not a universal solution to everything: “It’s not about how to make the best online course, it’s [how to make] the best course” – depending on context, this may be face-to-face, blended or fully online.

Kim Insley mentioned the impact of her pre-course handbook, which is circulated to students before they even start their course and helps greatly with setting and managing expectations. This idea has caught on and has been introduced elsewhere since.


A variety of other issues were discussed and can be reviewed on MediaCentral, including the full transcript and text chat protocol. Detailed accounts such as these help identify issues and improve their understanding in distance education and beyond.

Do you want support in improving your distance education programmes, or are you thinking about providing distance programmes?

Accommodating the Distance Learner – Seminar Series

By Kit, on 15 October 2018

LTU Autumn Seminar Series

RVSP for attendance: in person or online

Follow the Live Stream on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra
(14 Nov 2pm GMT – other timezones)

Across the IOE and UCL, we use various ways to accommodate distance learners academically. This series of knowledge exchange seminars will explore existing experiences as well as contemplate challenges and opportunities of distance learning in different contexts. Whether you run or are interested in online or mixed mode teaching, this series is open to all.

Date and location Accommodating the Distance Learner seminar
Friday 9 November
Room 822, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Panel Discussion: Fully Online
Key questions around distance learners in fully online modules.
Panellists: Will Gibson, Kim Insley, Richard Freeman
Wednesday 14 November
Room W3.05, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Panel Discussion: Mixed Delivery
Key questions around distance learners in simultaneous face-to-face and online modules.
Panellists: Jo Pearce, Manolis Mavrikis and Clare Bentall
Monday 26 November
Room 604, IOE 20 Bedford Way
Techniques-and-Practice Exchange
Guided knowledge exchange workshop to capture issues and solutions

If you are interested in attending IN PERSON please RSVP at bit.ly/LTU-ADL
To join the online live stream, either check this page at the time of the event or register at bit.ly/LTU-ADL-online

Contact the Learning Technologies Unit (ioe.ltu@ucl.ac.uk) for further information

How do we learn on a MOOC? 

By Eileen Kennedy, on 2 November 2017

The letters MOOC on the side of a building

Do your students take MOOCs as part of their learning?

Diana Laurillard and Eileen Kennedy from UCL Knowledge Lab (UCL Institute of Education) are undertaking a research project on the transformative potential of MOOCs and contrasting online pedagogies with the Centre for Global Higher Education.

They are hoping to find out how people learn on a Massive Open Online Course. They are particularly interested in how learning on a MOOC is different from or similar to other forms of online learning, taking a more in-depth approach than most current MOOC research. In particular, Diana and Eileen are keen to talk to current undergraduates about the way learning on a MOOC is similar to or different from other kinds of online learning.

This will inform the way we create MOOCs in the future by helping us design in more features that are supportive of learning and change others that are less so.

If you recommend MOOCs to your students (undergraduates or postgraduates) it would be very helpful if you could put a notice in your Moodle site to invite your students to take part in the research.

If you are willing to help, please contact Eileen on eileen.kennedy@ucl.ac.uk who will send you some text to add, or simply direct the students to this page

In return, Diana and Eileen are happy to share their results with you which could help with your evaluation of your use of MOOCs in your teaching.

Electronic grading and feedback practice at IOE

By Tim Neumann, on 16 February 2017

Academic staff at IOE are encouraged to fill in a short survey about electronic grading and feedback practice.

Led by CPA E-Learning Champion Dr Mary Richardson, we have designed a survey to explore how academic staff assess student work online and how you provide feedback via Moodle or other online settings.

The results will provide us with valuable information with the view to designing targeted support, strategic planning, and improvements to workflows.

Please find more information including the link to the survey on the IOE Staff Intranet (restricted access).

Would you like more information?
Are you interested in joining the UCL E-Learning Champions scheme?
Contact the LTU!

The new LTU Website is a Blog

By Tim Neumann, on 16 February 2017

Thanks for visiting our new Learning Technologies Unit (LTU) blog: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/LTU

With the structural changes at the UCL Knowledge Lab, we have lost our existing web presence. We aim to transition some of the old content over to this site, but as we are a small team, this task may become a victim of prioritisation over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, please contact us.
For general information about E-Learning, the UCL Digital Education blog is a valuable resource.

The LTU Team:
Tim Neumann, Kit Logan, Eileen Kennedy